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Encouraging Participatory Democracy: A Study of 30 Government Websites

For the first time in history, a wide distribution of technology allows citizens to get involved in public governance and participate in institutional life on a very regular basis. Yet websites of public authorities are barely taking advantage of the power of the participatory citizen.

There are two reasons for this gap:

  • First, the average citizen is not well informed about how basic democratic institutions function. How can we simplify citizen-to-government interfaces and how can we improve communication?
  • Second, the structure and the organization of public institutions’ websites must combine both information and online services. Access to public services online is increasingly separated from institutional information. While most people visit the service sites, what role should informational (institutional) websites play? Usability and user experience approaches can help address these issues.

To better understand the opportunities and challenges that are affecting institutional websites, we studied the main sites of thirty public authorities (eleven regional and nineteen municipal) and identified several innovative approaches.

How to Bridge the Participation Gap

Most citizens do not understand how basic democratic institutions and public administrations are set up. For instance, it is not easy to understand the relationship between the legislature (for example, city council, regional council, or parliament), the executive (the mayor and the deputies, the regional government), and the different departments and agencies in a locality responsible for providing services.

The various institutions are also related in often intricate ways. In the usability studies we conducted for the Italian public administration, for example, we noticed that those who are not part of the administration tend to feel lost while searching for relevant information and services. If the aim is to increase the participation of the citizen in public governance and decision-making, this complexity must be reduced. If people are not able to understand how things really work and function, how can they possibly influence the process? How can citizens participate in something they don’t know?

A second issue is the lack of clarity about the role of government websites. Some public authorities now separate their online services from their institutional communications on the web. While this approach increases the usability of online public services, it raises the question of what the aims of institutional sites are or should be.

Our hypothesis is that institutional sites can and should take on the role of a two-way communications tool on topics of policy and politics, support knowledge sharing regarding areas covered by the authority, and create maximum transparency about what the public administration actually does.

The Role of Usability and Strategic Communications

A strategic communications approach can help identify the core elements of institutions. What is a council or an executive really about? What are their powers and their limits? What is the very minimum that people need to navigate through these institutions effectively? How are these topics best communicated?

Similarly, a user research and usability approach can identify what the stumbling blocks are for active participation, what works and what doesn’t, what should be developed based on people’s behaviors and needs, and what can be improved.

Best Practice Analysis

During our best-practice analysis of the thirty websites, we looked for innovative approaches according to the latest understandings of usability and user experience analysis, applicable legal requirements, and a general need to better align the day-to-day practice of public institutions with the behavior and needs of the citizens.

We looked particularly at those sites that were public-information access points, as they provided insight into the direction that public institutions were taking to increase transparency and broaden participation in political decision-making.

Website Selection

The regional and municipal sites we chose were selected for their value as examples and for the insight they could provide on a number of best practices. The conclusions from this article are, of course, not exhaustive and often just apply to some of these sites, particularly the municipal ones. (See the list of surveyed sites at the end of this article. )

Indicators

The table below summarizes the types of best practices we studied to identify best practices in creating touch points with the citizens.

Table 1: Best practices for public websites

Functions of the Administration Implications for Web Communication Strategies
(Best Practice)
Type of Site Primary Activities Access to Information Participation and Structured Listening Tools
Councils and Executives Promotion of political activities

Planning and decision making

Access to policies, strategies, decisions, budget allocations, evaluations, and analysesConsultations and forums on specific topics

Proposals by citizens or private entities

Departments and Administrations Knowledge sharing with citizensDescription of who does whatFeedback on emerging needs that require an adjustment or modification of the organization
Transparency on the administrative process and activities of the institutionDescription of how political decisions are implementedConsultations and forums on alerts and on the control of administrative behavior
Information on routine management activitiesFeedback on anomalies, malfunctions and new needs

General Findings

There is a lot to be improved. Almost all the sites we analyzed share three characteristics:

  • Policy priorities are not concisely communicated and easy to understand. It is rare to find clear texts on plans, processes, and actions and on the relationship between priorities, activities, services, and initiatives.
  • There is only limited innovation in how regional or municipal institutions present themselves. Structures are idiosyncratic. Texts are long and written in bureaucratic language.
  • There are no tools for active participation. Despite the many publications on and initiatives for involving citizens in governance, most of the sites do not provide tools for participation, other than lists of email addresses or online forms with which to send in comments or file complaints.
  • However, some of the studied sites provide a few innovative elements that can be used as models and inspirations.

Table 2: Examples of Best Practices

Access to information Participation and structured listening tools
Best practice: Access to policies, strategies, decisions, budget allocations, evaluations, and analyses.

Amsterdam: Articles in the language and the visual style of a magazine feature explain the admnistration’s strategies and plans. Each page is connected to a forum to facilitate comments and discussion.

Berlin: A well-written news services explains priorities and policy choices.

Lombardy: Easy-to-read text explains priorities and values and their application in administration activities and initiatives.

London: People can discuss and provide comments on draft planning documents before they are finalized.

Lyon: Planning and evaluation documents are accessible on the same page.

Naga City: Summary budget information is easily available without any download.

Paris: A clear description of how the city’s decision-making process is organized.

Best practice: Consultations and forums on specific topics; proposals by citizens or private entities.

Alberta: Public consultations on planning documents.

Glasgow: Public consultation through web chats.

London: Draft and final strategies are published on the same page, making it easy for people to comment on draft documents.

Rotterdam: People can submit their own proposals for new services, initiatives, or activities, following a precise but simple procedure. Proposals will be discussed at the next city council meeting.

Surrey: Simple introduction to how people can get involved in decision-making.

Best practice: A description of who does what.

Glasgow: Each departmental page starts with a synopsis of objectives and services provided.

London: The London City Government section starts with “who does what.”

Toronto: Short synopsis for each city department.

Best practice: Feedback on emerging needs that require an adjustment or modification of the organization.

Lyon: Public consultation on urbanism priorities.

Best practice: Description of how political decisions are implemented.

No examples found.

Best Practice: Consultations and forums on alerts and on the control of administrative behavior.

Amsterdam: Publicly accessible forum serves as tool to channel recommendations and complaints.

London: Public is actively involved in helping the council to control the executive.

Naga City: Publicly accessible forum (with most recent posts on the city’s home page) serves as tool to channel recommendations and complaints.

Best practice: Information on routine management activities.

Edinburgh: Easily accessible assessment on “how are we performing?”

Best Practice: Feedback on anomalies, malfunctions, and new needs.

Lombardy: Polls allow people to express their opinion on topics or themes of particular relevance to the region.

London: People can express their views on how government services can be improved.

Toronto: Citizens can provide practical input on the concrete implementation of parking arrangements.

Final Comments

Our assessment shows at least eight different best communication practices. However, they are not consistently present in the websites we surveyed and do not stem from unified approaches. Typically, there are more public websites that show innovative practices in providing access to information than sites that allow control on the decision-making process. To improve information access, better communication strategies are needed. Better usability is of crucial importance in increasing participation.

An innovative approach to improving usability could originate from a clever use of social tagging. While this practice can increase the level of participation, it can also improve the usability and findability of documentation and might make it possible for the public to understand how specific political decisions are reached and implemented—an area notably lacking in all the websites we surveyed.

Many open questions remain. What communications strategies can lead to a user-centered approach for regional institutional websites? What are the innovations that would allow us to implement these strategies?

To answer these questions, we need more than just a best-practice survey. Why are these institutional sites so hard to use and to understand? Should it really be necessary to understand how institutions function to take advantage of institutional websites? If it is not sufficient to show the activities of the executive board, then what should these institutional sites do for citizens and private entities? How will a well-thought-out institutional website satisfy the need for participatory government?

Sites Studied

This article is based on a study that took place at the end of 2005. Some of the studied websites (Abruzzi, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Naga City, Melbourne, and Sydney) have undergone substantial changes since then. However, we believe that the main conclusions of our paper still stand. Up-to-date information on the latest trends in citizen participation in online public services and public authority websites can be found on the blog www.experientia.com/e-democracy.

Regional sites covered by this study:

Municipal sites covered by this study: